SACRAMENTO â€” Most Californians treat with bemusement the news that theÂ board of supervisors in far-north Siskiyou County voted 4-1 early thisÂ month to seek secession from California and revive efforts to create aÂ new state of Jefferson.
But while U.S. flags are unlikely to soon add another star, this ruralÂ separatist movement has long been brewing and is based on seriousÂ grievances that state and federal officials would be wise to ponder.
Two years ago, I attended the Defend Rural America event at theÂ Siskiyou County fairgrounds in Yreka, where some attendees proudlyÂ flew the Jefferson flag. The proposed stateâ€™s boundaries have varied,Â but the movement was started in 1941 to combine counties in southernÂ Oregon with some in northern California. The flag features two â€śXsâ€ť â€”Â to signify being double-crossed by Sacramento and Salem.
The earliest Jefferson movement dissipated after the attack on Pearl Harbor.Â Itâ€™s hard to call for a national break-up during wartime. But theÂ movement has been a backdrop to debates in those counties ever since.Â The Jefferson movement was a â€śpublicity gimmickâ€ť to lure federalÂ investment in local minerals and logging industries, according to theÂ Oregon Encyclopedia. But locals donâ€™t see it as a stunt.
More than 100 people packed the board chambers for the recent vote,Â according to news reports, with almost all of them supporting theÂ resolution. That wouldnâ€™t be a bad turnout in San Diego County, withÂ its 3 million population, let alone in Siskiyou, population 44,000.
Secessionists complain that public policy is driven by the largeÂ metropolitan regions, and that urban legislators are constantlyÂ attacking their way of life. At the Yreka event in 2011, for instance,Â eight sheriffs from both states vowed to defy federal rules limitingÂ public access to public lands. Locals decried plans to demolish dams along the Klamath River.
They say that no one listens to them.
â€śThis is the beginning of a discussion about having a different set ofÂ rules for urban communities and rural communities because ourÂ lifestyles are so different,â€ť Richard Marshall, president of theÂ Siskiyou Water Users and a Fort Jones resident, told me. â€śWeâ€™re having a discussion, not a revolution.â€ť
Itâ€™s a shorter drive from San Diego to El Paso, Texas, than it is fromÂ San Diego to Yreka. Itâ€™s still a four-and-a-half-hour drive to remoteÂ and mountainous Yreka from Sacramento, which explains why ruralÂ residents want regulations tailored to their unique needs.
Although secession has a conservative bent â€” with its focus onÂ gun-rights, and complaints about land-use restrictions and oddballÂ priorities in the Capitol â€” itâ€™s not entirely right wing. MarijuanaÂ farmers and free spirits in the rural coastal counties, such asÂ Humboldt, have also complained about indifference from far-off officials.
This, obviously, wouldnâ€™t be the first time a new state was created inÂ America, a nation which broke off from another country. Yet someÂ editorialists have expressed outrage at this modest act of defiance.
The Sacramento Beeâ€™s editorial page, known to champion the causes ofÂ Californiaâ€™s poor and downtrodden, couldnâ€™t muster any sympathy forÂ hard-pressed north-state residents. The vote is a â€śjuvenile stunt,â€ť itÂ harumphed, as it used the countyâ€™s plight (an old population, highÂ poverty rate and dependence on government jobs) as evidence thatÂ â€śseceding would only make Siskiyouâ€™s problems worse.â€ť
Siskiyou residents say that the county is such a basket case becauseÂ the governmentâ€™s environmental rules have limited opportunities forÂ logging, farming and fishing. The population would be younger ifÂ people could get jobs. Siskiyou residents say they arenâ€™t happy thatÂ they depend on government.
Reacting to such big-city criticism, the Chico Enterprise-Record, inÂ Butte County, reminded readers that the secession vote is aboutÂ opposing oppressive regulations, skewed priorities and resource grabsÂ that emanate from â€śdetachedâ€ť Sacramento: â€śThe folks in Siskiyou CountyÂ just got tired of outsiders telling them what they could and couldnâ€™tÂ do.â€ť The movement, it argued, is designed to get government officials to â€ślisten up.â€ť
One shouldnâ€™t be optimistic about any new listening skills given thatÂ rural residents canâ€™t match the political muscle of the stateâ€™sÂ largest special-interest groups. So the Jefferson idea probably wonâ€™tÂ go far, but the issues that animate it wonâ€™t go away, either.
Steven Greenhut is the California columnist at U-T San Diego. Write toÂ him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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